One on One: Roy Gutman, Middle East Correspondent, McClatchy Newspapers

The Istanbul-based reporter talks about his latest trip into Syria, to IDP camps near the Turkish border. People there, he says, “are living in squalor.”.

Written by Karen Leigh Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes

Roy Gutman is based in Istanbul, as the Middle East correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers. Previously, he was the head of the group’s Baghdad bureau and served as its foreign editor. In 1993, Gutman won the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the war in Bosnia, where he provided the first documented reports of concentration camps.

Gutman has reported extensively in Syria since the beginning of the conflict. In early May, Turkish media reported that while taking photographs of refugees along the border, Gutman was detained and accused of spying. He was released later that day.

He tells Syria Deeply about his detention and what he saw when he ventured across the border, reporting on internally displaced Syrians near the town of Bab al-Hawa.

I was reporting about a clash in northern Hama, where a lot of tanks were supposedly attacked by rebel forces and supposedly with Tow missiles, maybe not. They were very successful in an area called an-Shaher. I was trying to figure out a way to illustrate it because I wasn’t there. Going in, at that point, was quite dangerous, and I only had firsthand accounts of what happened. But I needed photos. So I went to the town of Hacipasa, which is the major crossing for people without papers from Syria. I asked a taxi driver to take us to the border area so I could catch people arriving, as a way of illustrating the drama of it.

I was walking near the river where people come across in rafts. And I was stopped by a guy who was a fuel smuggler, and it turned out he was working with the army, doing something totally illegal, but in a trade-off for being allowed to do that, he reports on anyone crossing in or out. He stopped us, and he said, “You can’t be here. I’m going to call in the army.” So they came in some armored vehicles and took us off to a local base, held us in a basketball court for about five hours, outdoors. They took my laptop and my press card and then transferred us to the police.

I got to see the gendarmerie and the intelligence department. They asked me whether I’d crossed the border illegally. The army had just put out a statement that an American journalist had crossed illegally by raft. I said I hadn’t. I showed them my hotel bill from the previous night and the ticket for my rental car and said I was just there to take a picture, here’s my camera. He discovered my passport and saw that I did have an entry visa [to Turkey] and that this was all wrong. We got released at 1 a.m. in Hacipasa. The town at that hour is alive and crazy. It’s like Times Square. A lot of smugglers are out, working their routes.

I last went into Syria at the beginning of May, for one day, to Bab al-Hawa. I had planned this trip for four months, but could not find a safe way of going in. Finally we were able to assemble a group of armed men who brought a pickup truck and drove us in. And with that, I felt completely safe.

The story I wanted to do was on internally displaced people (IDPs.) I knew they were coming by the tens of thousands from Aleppo and its surroundings, and living right along the border. Right now, there’s more than 100 IDP camps [in Syria.] I wanted to examine one or two camps, see how people are living. These are people who have no voice and no advocate. This goes for IDPs anywhere in the world, but in Syria you have the world’s largest IDP population. The U.N. figures say 6.9 million, but the real figures are probably 30 percent higher than that.

I found that they were living in squalor. There were no tents available. People are arriving every day and they have no place to sleep, so there are 20 people living in a tent that’s supposed to hold 10. Or they’re sleeping out in the open with a tarp over their heads. I found the international community was doing next to nothing for them.

I had intended to stay until at least 5 or 6 p.m. in the evening, but the Turkish checkpoint now closes at 5 p.m. so you have to leave by 4:30. That experience, and the data I got from there, and the names and the photographs: I wanted to go to every NGO on the border, to the U.N., and say, What are you doing for these people? And I found that it’s a vacuum. It’s a complete vacuum. That was the story I wasn’t expecting. I thought that when you had such an immense population arriving by the day into camps that are totally inadequate, that you’d have some sort of proper setup.

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